1 November 2020

Can a Ceasefire and More Impartial Mediators Succeed Where Diplomacy Has Failed to Date in Nagorno Karabakh?

by Jeff Lovitt, Chair, New Diplomacy

Concerns are mounting that a humanitarian tragedy could develop in and around Nagorno Karabakh as a wide-ranging war has erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a situation that already carries with it echoes of the displacement of more than 1 million people (the majority Azerbaijanis) during the conflict in the early 1990s. 

Two weeks into the new war that broke out on 27 September, a Russia-brokered ceasefire, then two weeks later a US-mediated one, were broken almost immediately. The attacks on civilian areas – for instance those to date on Stepanakert, the largest city in Nagorno Karabakh, and on Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan – "may be mistakes or efforts by combatants to deter further escalation by the other side", notes the International Crisis Group. "If intentional or with insufficient care for protecting the civilian population, they violate international law. Even if not, they are causing tremendous suffering. They are counterproductive to an eventual peace, hardening hostility and rendering a sustainable settlement more remote." 

Both sides "must eschew cluster bombs, stop targeting population centres and provide corridors for the evacuation of the wounded and dead and the delivery of humanitarian aid," argues ICG. "International actors, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which has overseen negotiations since the end of hostilities in 1994, and its co-chairs France, Russia and the US, other capitals worldwide and international organisations should speak in one voice and specifically call for such measures." 

Nagorno-Karabakh: A Defining Feature of Both National Identities

The 1991-1994 war (initial clashes in 1988 escalated into a full-blown war) broke out over the status of what was an autonomous region of Azerbaijan in the Soviet Union with a multi-ethnic population, the majority of which were ethnic Armenians. The war resulted in the displacement of not only more than 700,000 Azerbaijanis, but also more than 300,000 Armenians (just as Azerbaijanis were displaced by Armenian forces in Nagorno Karabakh and around, so ethnic Armenians were expelled from different parts of Azerbaijan, including a substantial community in the capital, Baku, and likewise ethnic Azerbaijanis were displaced from Armenia).

Ever since, the conflict has been – rather than a frozen conflict – a low-level conflict, with intermittent flare-ups over the past two-and-a-half decades. Yet now it has the makings of a full-blown war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, controlled by Armenia (with self-government by the region's ethnic Armenian population) since the war of 1991-1994, after which not only Nagorno Karabakh itself, but also seven surrounding provinces of Azerbaijan and a channel of land linking Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia have been held by Armenia.

The failure to make any forward-looking diplomatic progress in settlement of the decades-long dispute has entrenched both sides in their determination that the territory is a defining part of their respective national identities – not least as the 1991-1994 conflict coincided with the emergence from the USSR of the respective independent republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1991.

Frozen Diplomacy Rather than Frozen Conflict

According to Leila Alieva, writing for the Vienna-based International Institute for Peace, the Minsk Group (comprising the US, France, Russia, Belarus and Turkey, as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan) failed to broker a solution to the conflict. "The possible solution within the Minsk process did not seem realistic. First, it brought 'normative uncertainty', equalising principles of territorial integrity and right of self- determination. While one international body – the UN Security Council (UNSC) – adopted four resolutions demanding the unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces, further actions to implement those demands did not follow. The Minsk process, on the contrary, 'legitimised' application of force by turning military gains into a bargaining tool. In the negotiations process, the withdrawal of forces is tied to the determination of the status of [Nagorno] Karabakh. This message could be read by the parties to the conflict in the following way: international law can be evaded with the use of force, and the greater one’s military gains are, the more they will receive as a result of a deal."

This approach froze diplomacy rather than the conflict, argues Alieva, an Affiliate at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford, and one of New Diplomacy's co-founders. "The unresolved conflict was used by the parties to consolidate political control or distract attention from the increasing social problems or governance failure. The absence of real pressure on either party made the win-lose situation predominant and parties resistant to compromises." Alieva argues that "the domestic dynamic in Azerbaijan, complicated by the 'resource curse', resulted in the strengthening of autocratic rule, which made a balancing act with Russia easier. Most importantly, the conflicts remained the tool of the Northern neighbour to preserve its influence in all of the Eastern neighbourhood. This role of Russia was not even neutralised by the revolution in Armenia in 2018, as it simply separated the political and security fields, retaining the role of Russia in the latter."

In Armenia, argues Alieva, "the democratically elected charismatic [Prime Minister Nikol] Pashinyan faced the necessity to accommodate the nationalist stance of influential and economically powerful institutions – the loyal-to-Russia Karabakh clan and Armenian diaspora in the West. The popular, rather than economic, basis of [Pashinyan's] power, forced him to become increasingly nationalistic, to the level of an openly provocative policy. The change of the military doctrine and weapons from the defensive to offensive, frequent visits to Karabakh, especially to Shusha, previously populated by Azerbaijanis, support for the decision to move there the Nagorno-Karabakh 'parliament', a statement that 'Karabakh is Armenia', which made the peace negotiations meaningless – all this contributed to the escalation."

If the parties return to the Minsk process, argues Alieva, as well as "a clear timetable" for negotiations, "the military gains should be delegitimised in the bargaining process – this is needed not only to prevent possible military adventures, but also to reach long-lasting peace, which cannot be built under military pressure". In addition, "the format of co-chairmen should include non-partisan states" as perceived by the two parties, or one co-chair party chosen by each of the two parties. In the case of bilateral talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, she adds, "all the conditions should be created for the parties to look for the acceptable and mutually beneficial solution with active participation of experts, civil society and other independent institutions."

Does One Injustice Remedy Another?

The ineffectiveness of diplomacy over the conflict is reiterated by Thomas de Waal. Writing for Foreign Affairs, he argues that the Minsk process "achieved little and did not even begin to tackle the democratic deficit at the heart of the conflict by engaging civil society, talking to marginalised communities, or tackling the toxic hate speech that fuels the conflict. Russia eventually assumed the leading role in determining the region’s fate, much as it did the century before."

As de Waal – a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War – notes, Azerbaijan's military offensive has "given thousands of displaced Azerbaijanis hope of returning to the lands they still consider home", but "in reversing one injustice, Azerbaijan is bloodily creating a new one: the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are under attack and may soon be encircled, facing potentially devastating humanitarian consequences".  

Insecurity and the Democratic Deficit

"The devilish intractability of this conflict stems from two factors," notes de Waal. "A century-old security dilemma, in which each side has sought to achieve a sense of safety and control at the expense of the other, thereby undermining the security of both; and a democratic deficit, a total absence of societal trust and real dialogue, that makes compromise between the two sides almost impossible." 

According to de Waal, "the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh in both its old and new iterations offers a lesson in the impossibility of an ultimate victory. A victim quickly becomes a perpetrator and vice-versa. In the current fighting, the pendulum has now swung strongly in favour of Azerbaijan on the battlefield." Yet, he continues, "the Azerbaijanis should heed their own experience of 1994, when the Armenians believed they had achieved 'absolute security'. If they face the prospect of losing their much-loved territory of Karabakh, the Armenians may resort to desperate measures and continue the war by other means, perhaps even attacking Azerbaijani targets outside the region."

Noting that the current Azerbaijani advance could be "slowed by winter or highland geography" or "a latter-day Russian-Turkish great-power deal", de Waal concludes that "even if this round of fighting ends in Azerbaijan’s favour, Armenians will not give up. The dispute over Nagorno Karabakh will likely remain unresolved for another generation to come."

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